Weeks ahead of the Philippine election, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jnr – son and namesake of the late strongman Marcos – is the clear front runner and on the verge of becoming the 17th president. Multiple surveys indicate he enjoys a commanding lead over his rivals for the top job in the country of 110 million people, where more than 67 million are eligible voters. Should the indications from the polls translate to actual votes, the former senator will join the who’s who of Asian “princelings” – offspring of ex-leaders who rise to become leaders themselves and whose stints in power reinforce the role of political dynasties in the continent’s governance tradition. Can the Philippines ever break the grip of its political dynasties? With this in mind, Marcos Jnr’s rise is no outlier in Asia. Indeed, his potential victory showcases how political dynasties, whether by pedigree or destiny, continue to be a force to be reckoned with across Asian polities. The term “princeling” is most often used to describe high-ranking Chinese Communist Party officials who had powerful parents. This phenomenon is also manifest in other societies governed by authoritarian one-party states, including Vietnam, Laos and North Korea – but it also enjoys wide currency in places where electoral democracy is well entrenched. For instance, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is the son of a renowned solon who also served as trade and foreign minister. His maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was also a former prime minister while his paternal grandfather, Kan Abe, is a former member of Congress. Other examples include Taiwan’s Chiang Kai Shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo. While his father governed with an iron fist from 1928 until his death in 1975, the younger Chiang earned plaudits for his lasting contributions to Taiwan’s democratisation during his 1978-1988 stint in power. Elsewhere in the region, the example of Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and his eldest son, the city state’s current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, comes to mind. Both earned global reputations for their stewardship of the country’s economy, managing relations with bigger neighbours and for navigating major power rivalry. Strongmen, whether of civilian or military extraction, have also produced daughters that would later become the first woman leaders of bustling Asian democracies. India’s Indira Gandhi, Indonesia’s Megawati Sukarnoputri, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye are cases in point. These trailblazing women leaders broke male monotony in national-level politics, and the precedent they set has yet to be replicated in their home countries to this day. Can Robredo’s ‘pink wave’ reverse the Marcos tide in Philippine poll? For the offspring, their parents’ legacy, controversial and polarising as they are, have been both a blessing and a baggage. Some of these latter-year Asian leaders, while viewed as strongmen, governed in a way that saw observers describe them as “benevolent or enlightened dictators” as they oversaw rapid industrialisation and postcolonial political stability. Of course, a handful of them also weathered backlash, amid accusations of corruption and riding roughshod on human rights and democracy. Be that as it may, this divisive past did not act as an impediment for their progeny to seek and land the most coveted job in their homeland. Was it the benefit of hindsight that allowed later generations to make more impartial and less emotive assessments of the achievements and failings of past leaders? Marcos’ consistent lead in pre-election surveys revives the debate about how the present looks at the past when deciding about the future. His impressive lead late into the game shows how powerful political families and clans continue to dominate one of Asia’s oldest democracies. If he makes it, his feat will not be unprecedented. In fact, he will just be the third in the country’s history. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who became the country’s 14th and second woman president (2001-10), was the first. Her father, Diosdado Macapagal, served as the country’s ninth president (1961-65). The second was the late Benigno Aquino III, the country’s 15th chief executive (2010-16). He was the son of the country’s first woman and 11th president, Corazon Aquino (1986-92). Marcos Jnr will thus attempt to join this tradition and take the cudgels from his father, the country’s 10th head of state and longest-serving leader (1965-86), whose legacy continues to divide the nation decades after his demise. Political dynasties are pervasive and deeply entrenched in Philippine politics. The dean of the Ateneo School of Government, Ronald Mendoza, revealed in a recent study that 80 per cent of the country’s governors, 67 per cent of its representatives in Congress and 53 per cent of its mayors hail from political dynasties which feature other relatives concurrently holding other positions in local government. In other cases, family members take turns holding the post as if public offices are hereditary fiefdoms. Popularity, resources, connections and, sometimes, intimidation, constitute high entry barriers for potential challengers, perpetuating the cycle every election. Although the constitution prohibits political dynasties, the absence of a clear definition by law creates loopholes for them to thrive. That congress is stacked by members coming from political dynasties themselves only fuel pessimism for reform. Several contenders in this coming national elections hail from established political dynasties which have lorded over provinces and cities for years. Marcos Jnr’s mother Imelda, the former first lady, is a former member of Congress. His sister, Imee, is a senator and previously a provincial governor and member of Congress. Marcos Jnr’s running mate, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is the presidential daughter. Sara’s brother, Paolo, is a member of Congress and former vice-mayor, while the younger brother, Sebastian, is incumbent mayor of Davao City, the Dutertes’ bailiwick. The siblings’ grandfather is a former mayor and provincial governor. Among Sara’s rivals in the vice-presidential race include Senator Vicente Sotto III and his nephew-in-law Francis Pangilinan, both running under opposing political camps. Sotto’s paternal grandfather is a former senator and member of Congress. One senatorial candidate, former vice-president, senator and mayor Jejomar Binay is the patriarch of a family that came to dominate the politics of Makati City, the country’s financial hub. In 2019, his daughter, Abigail, and son, Jejomar Jnr, fought for the mayoralty race of the wealthy city, with the former winning. Whether the son can vindicate or redeem his father’s memory or not is for Filipinos to decide. But whichever way it goes, Marcos Jnr’s run adds a new page in Asia’s book of princelings The possible return of a Marcos to the pinnacle of Philippine political power also attests to the resilience of political families and their ability to bounce back after falling from grace. Former President Joseph Estrada was impeached for corruption and other charges in 2001, later convicted of plunder but eventually pardoned in 2007. He would later run and bag two consecutive terms as mayor of Manila, the country’s capital. Estrada’s two sons became senators, and both are raring to return to the same posts this election. Ex-President Arroyo was likewise accused of corruption, as well as vote-rigging, but still managed to win a congressional seat and even became House Speaker after her second presidential term. Her son, Juan Miguel, became a vice-provincial governor and member of Congress. Marcos Jnr’s wife emerges from shadows as Philippine election race heats up The martial law period of Marcos Snr (1972-81) long cast a shadow on the political career of his children. It has coloured their participation in the country’s boisterous politics since the family’s return from exile in the US in the early 1990s. Whether the son can vindicate or redeem his father’s memory or not is for the Filipinos to decide. But whichever way it goes, Marcos Jnr’s run certainly adds a new page in Asia’s book of princelings. Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, fellow at the University of the Philippines Korea Research Centre, lecturer at the Chinese Studies Programme at Ateneo de Manila University, and contributing editor (Reviews) for the Asian Politics & Policy Journal.